The Vougioukli Sisters Get Back to the Roots
by Eleni Kostopoulos
Their individual talent is untouchable, but together, Eleni and Souzana Vougioukli form a vocal powerhouse mesmerizing enough to transport an audience to a far-flung land or a distant moment in time. The sultry sisters (Eleni, a beautiful blonde, and Souzana, a stunning brunette) remain committed to using their voices as the central, and sometimes sole, instruments in their captivating performances, for which they sing traditional songs in more than 20 languages and dialects. Late last year, the duo flaunted its musical talents at the prestigious Carnegie Hall; though a tough act to follow, Eleni and Souzana are prepping to delve into a number of exciting upcoming projects to the delight of their greatest fans across the globe.
“We are very excited about a new record we are working on with Nagra, a company with a great history of recording for over 70 years,” Eleni says. “It’s a great honor for us, and it’s a pioneering project, [in which] we will record live, out of the studio, in various places, extreme places, with or without an audience, capturing the emotion of live performance! [We’re going] back to the roots: less equipment, more music.”
Following the success of their latest album, To Be Safe, an independent production that boasted their own compositions for the very first time, the Vougioukli sisters will embark on a tour set to commence in August throughout Greece. The siblings’ repertoire of songs is composed of various traditions of different cultures and languages, including rebetika and traditional Greek songs in all dialects such as that of the Greek-speaking community of Southern Italy, Portuguese fado, Spanish, Sephardic, French, Italian, Romanian, Turkish, Arabic, Gypsy, Serb, American blues and jazz, Armenian, Pomak (a Slavic dialect of the Rhodopi mountain in Northern Greece) and Bulgarian.
“It is a fact that the more languages you learn, the easier it becomes to learn [even more languages],” says Souzana. “Though we are not fluent in every language we sing in, we are interested in how these languages function, and we always consult native speakers to explain things to us. What we are mainly searching for is the musicality of each language, the characteristic pronunciation, which, we strongly believe, is an essential part of every song.”
This love affair with traditional, international music has been long standing for Eleni and Souzana, who agree that their decision to embrace this art came very naturally early in life.
“We grew up in a home full of music- literally all kinds of music- from classical and traditional to rock and blues, and listening to music from the cinema to avant-garde performers, like Klaus Nomi and Diamanda Galas,” recalls Eleni. “In our town of Xanthi, there is a dominant multiethnic element because it represents the crossroads between Europe and the Balkans with Asia. We also spent two years in Wales at a young age to attend a multi-ethnic school; this international element seems to be a prevailing and inevitable factor in our lives. As it seems, we have always traveled all around the world with music as our vehicle!”
Eleni, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Balkan, Slavic and Oriental Studies from the University of Macedonia, and Souzana, who is a graduate of the Mathematics Department of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, where she majored in Pure Mathematics, very effortlessly established their professional partnership. Their collective musical influences over the years are plentiful and diverse: Maria Callas, Nina Simone, The Beatles, The Doors, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Yma Sumac, Umm Kalthum, Tom Waits, Elvis, Klaus Nomi, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Nino Rota, Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Demetrio Stratos, Bobby McFerry, among many others.
“It is hard to define how and when it all started as it happened almost subconsciously,” says Souzana. “We lived in the same house, we are very close in age and we both began attending music school at a very young age. Surely, each of us has had her own side projects, but there was always some kind of cooperation.”
Though working together unremittingly, the sisters are bound to disagree from time to time, but they just view any conflicting opinions as another way to fuel their creativity.
“We work together almost all day long- our cooperation is very creative,” says Souzana. “Of course we will always have some disagreements to deal with, but they’re usually on minor issues that don’t affect our work as we have the same vision and aesthetic. After all, sometimes disagreement helps the evolution of art.”
Over the span of their careers, Eleni and Souzana have worked with a number of well-known artists including Maria Farantouri at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Goran Bregovic, Thanassis Gaifyllias, Loudovikos Ton Anoyion, Vasilis Lekkas, Ilias Andriopoulos, Psarantonis and Rotting Christ. Globally, the response to their unique performances has been what Eleni calls “enthusiastic.”
“We feel really blessed to be able to do what we love in our music without having to compromise anything, and to see audiences who appreciate and embrace it, regardless of whether they are in Greece, Switzerland, Italy, Turkey, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Cyprus, Belgium, Luxembourg, Nepal or, of course, New York,” says Eleni. “What we do in our art springs from the interaction between ourselves and through our communication with our audience, which is really invaluable for a performer.”
One of Souzana’s most treasured professional experiences thus far was their concert at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
“That was a magical moment for us, and we would love to live this experience again soon,” says Souzana. “The New York audience was so warm and very open-minded. It was really a great success and we would like to thank Leong Ying, who invited us [to perform], from the bottom of our hearts.”
When they’re not focused on work, the Vougioukli sisters enjoy other art forms, particularly in historic Athens.
“We enjoy theater, cinema, reading, art exhibitions, traveling, walking around in the historic center of Athens, cafes and small tavernas under the Acropolis,” says Souzana. Eleni adds, “We also enjoy having conversations with friends and other artists.”
After years of working together, it’s clear the sisters have the utmost respect and admiration for each other.
Souzana describes Eleni as “talented, beautiful, emotional, passionate (too much sometimes) and unique!” Eleni describes Souzana as “talented, confident, ingenious, passionate and gorgeous!”
The sisters credit their creative spirit to their successes, noting that being true to one’s self is the only way to achieve great heights.
“We believe that the key to success is to do what you really love and want in your life,” say the sisters. “For us, it is very important that everybody must do the job that she or he was meant for and is good at because every human being is talented at something. Do whatever you do without compromising, have great faith in it and most importantly, have a vision! We should never stop dreaming!”